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"White King" and others. The most mysterious unit of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the photos of Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Soldiers of the Russian Volunteer Corps after a mission in the Belgorod region. 24 May 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

On 22 May 2023, a series of explosions took place in the Belgorod region. The Main Intelligence Directorate of Ukraine said that an operation was being conducted in the area to "create a security lane" exclusively with the participation of Russian citizens. Instead, a "counter-terrorism operation" was introduced in the Belgorod region and the evacuation of nuclear weapons from the storage facility began. The Office of the President of Ukraine reported that Ukraine was not directly involved in the events in Belgorod, but was "watching with interest". Two units claimed responsibility for the events: the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps.

The Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers publishes photographs by Vyacheslav Ratynsky, who took pictures of representatives of Russian units fighting on the side of Ukraine.


Following a series of explosions in the Belgorod region, the media reported that Russian volunteers fighting for Ukraine had arrived in the area. "The 'Russian Volunteer Corps' (RVC) and the 'Freedom of Russia' legion stated that they were creating a 'demilitarised zone on the border with Russia, from where the Russian military will not be able to shell Ukraine'. On 23 May, the Russian Ministry of Defence reported the defeat of Russian volunteer units. However, on 23 May, GRU spokesman Andrey Yusov noted that the RDC operation in Russia was continuing.

The Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps after a mission in the Belgorod region. 24 May 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

"The Russian Volunteer Corps is a unit of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It was formed in August 2022 to defend Ukraine from a full-scale Russian invasion. The RDC is a member of the International Legion of the TrO. The RDC commander, Denys Nikitin, said that they are part of the 98th Battalion of the Azov-Dnipro Task Force. The RDC is open to ethnic Russian emigrants living in Ukraine and other countries. The Freedom of Russia Legion was created by Russian soldiers among prisoners of war to fight Putin's regime.

«Crazy daredevils»

In May 2023, Viacheslav Ratynskyi was working in the Donetsk region. At the end of the month, he began receiving reports of "unusual things" happening on the border with Russia, in the Belgorod region. "No one could figure out what happened. It turned out that units consisting of Russians had broken through the border, seized the checkpoint, killed several FSB officers and even seized equipment. They held control of the Russian border villages for several weeks. No one expected this turn of events," recalls photographer Vyacheslav Ratynsky. The Legion of Freedom of Russia and the Russian Volunteer Corps claimed responsibility for these actions. They actively published videos and photos of their "exploits and adventures". Russian propagandists claimed to have eliminated the RDC fighters.

"Everyone was curious to see who these crazy brave men were. My colleagues and I travelled to Kharkiv, and from there to a secret location in the neighbouring region. When I arrived at the meeting point, I saw almost a hundred other journalists there. So the place was not so secret after all," says Viacheslav with a smile.

An APC captured in Russia. 24 May 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Representatives of Russian units gathered at one of the training grounds. They arrived in a trophy APC, and there were several dozen of them. Ratynskyi says that the Russians posed with weapons, wearing new equipment and flags of their units. The excitement among the journalists was fierce. The soldiers generously gave comments and shared their successes.

Representatives of the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps pose for the cameras. 24 May 2023. Photo by Vyacheslav Ratynsky

"The most striking character, in my opinion, was the RDC commander Denis Nikitin. He introduced himself as "White rex", i.e. "White King". He behaved very confidently, I would say boldly. He even fired a gun in the air. But he obediently spoke to the cameras for more than an hour and posed for photographers," says Vyacheslav Ratynsky.

The RDC commander, Denis Nikitin, introduced himself as "White Rex". 24 May 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Special Forces

After the meeting with the RDC fighters, Viacheslav and his colleagues travelled to Vovchansk in the Kharkiv region. "It was near this town that Russian volunteers were making sorties across the Russian border to fight the Russian army. It sounds crazy," says the photographer. "On the way to Vovchansk, I saw a lot of armoured vehicles driving back and forth. There was constant shelling in the city, and the forest around was on fire. I met a lot of different special forces there, which, of course, were not allowed to be photographed."

Armoured vehicles at the entrance to Vovchansk. 4 June 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

A directional sign in the direction of Belhorod in Vovchansk. 4 June 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

The forests around Vovchansk were constantly on fire. 4 June 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

A woman at the destroyed market in the centre of Vovchansk. 4 June 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

A soldier in Vovchansk. 4 June 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Vyacheslav and his colleagues tried to get to the border to "see the situation from the corner of their eyes". However, due to constant shelling, the journalists were turned back. Ratynskyi came to Vovchansk for several more days in a row. "Once, during a heavy shelling, we did not know where to hide. Suddenly, an elderly man with a moustache, Mykola Ivanovych, came out of a yard. He offered us to hide in the cellar in the backyard with him, the twists and his sheepdog Kurt. I even bought bread, sausage and vodka for Mykola Ivanovych. But unfortunately, we never went to Vovchansk again," Ratynskyi shares his memories.

Mykola Ivanovych and his sheepdog Kurt are waiting in the cellar for a mortar attack. 5 June 2022. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

Soldiers in Vovchansk. 5 June 2022. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

The city was subjected to constant shelling. 5 June 2022. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi

For some time, Russian volunteers were "nightmarising" the enemy on the border. However, there is little news about them now. "I know that the RDC is still fighting. Last autumn, I filmed the training of their recruits near Kyiv," says Vyacheslav Ratynsky. "Young Russians, some very young, come from Russia to join the ranks of Ukrainian units. I asked them what they were doing here. Most of them explain that they see this struggle as a way to overthrow the dictatorial regime in their homeland and dream of a 'normal' Russia."

Young Russian recruits of the RDC practice shooting at a training ground near Kyiv. 6 October 2023. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi


Viacheslav Ratynskyi is a Ukrainian documentary photographer and photojournalist. He has been working in the field of photojournalism for over 10 years. He has worked with international and Ukrainian news agencies and media, including Reuters, The Guardian, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazine and others. He has been published in many Western and Ukrainian media, including: The Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Telegraph, The New York Times, El Pais, Der Spiegel and others. He has participated in numerous photo exhibitions in Europe, the USA, Japan and South Korea. His photographs have been published in several books.

Viacheslav Ratynskyi works in Ukraine. His work explores the impact of war on society, social and political issues.


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As a reminder, the Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers has launched a series of materials dedicated to the key events of the Russian war against Ukraine, where it publishes memoirs and photographs of Ukrainian documentary photographers. 

The project is implemented thanks to the support of IWM Documenting Ukraine.


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